COMMENTARY | It is a manager's job to put his team in the best position to win a game.
Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire's insistence on pinch-running in the wrong situations has been hindering the Twins, and it appeared to prove costly in an extra-inning loss to the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday, May 5.
Prior to the 2013 season, the Twins traded away Denard Span and Ben Revere. Both were speedy outfielders that batted at the top of the order and combined for 57 stolen bases. The Twins also didn't offer a contract to second baseman Alexi Casilla, who added another 21 stolen bases in 2012.
The Twins replaced these players with Chris Parmelee, whose best position is first base but is playing right field with Justin Morneau at first base; second baseman Brian Dozier, who will never be confused with a speed demon; and Aaron Hicks, who is speedy but was promoted from Class AA and never had a lot of stolen bases in the minor leagues.
This means the Twins have the least amount of team speed than they have had since Gardenhire took over as manager in 2002. Gardenhire appears to be trying to make up for this by pinch-running every chance he gets.
He's even gone so far as to pinch-run 39-year-old Jamey Carroll for 26-year-old Trevor Plouffe, a third baseman that came up as a shortstop. Now, Plouffe has never been known for his speed but even in his youth, Carroll's speed was not one of his strengths.
Another pinch-running move came under scrutiny after the road loss to the Red Sox. The Twins had just tied up the game in the ninth inning on a home run by Brian Dozier when Josh Willingham walked with two outs, representing the go-ahead run. Gardenhire had Eduardo Escobar, a speedy infielder with a career .660 OPS in the minor leagues, pinch-run for Willingham, the Twins' second-best hitter and best power hitter.
Two pitches later, Justin Morneau grounded out and the game went to extra innings. Since backup catcher Ryan Doumit had pinch-hit for Pedro Florimon to lead off the ninth, Escobar went to shortstop and Doumit to left field for the now-departed Willingham.
This switching ended up costing the Twins in the 11th inning when Doumit came up a step short from catching the game-winning double by Boston's Stephen Drew. Willingham will never win a Gold Glove and might even be a step slower than Doumit, but Doumit had not played in the outfield since Sept. 30, including spring training, so it seems likely that Willingham would have had a better chance of catching the ball hit by Drew.
While pinch-running for Willingham netted nothing and replacing him with Doumit appeared to be costly, this instance of pinch-running was a reasonable move by Gardenhire and far less deserving of criticism than other moves he made in the same game.
Since Doumit had already pinch-hit for Florimon, that meant Escobar or Jamey Carroll, another middle infielder on the bench, was needed to play shortstop. Doumit had to stay in the game because he was the Twins' only backup catcher, so Escobar needed to replace someone playing a position Doumit could switch to -- the only options were catcher or one of the corner outfield spots.
The obvious choice would have been to replace Parmelee in right field, but once Willingham reached base in the ninth, Gardenhire chose to use Escobar's speed on base, so he replaced Willingham instead of Parmelee. This was creative thinking by Gardenhire to maximize the limited moves he had available to him.
If Doumit had been in right field instead of left, the Twins would have most likely lost anyways because Parmelee made a spectacular catch to rob Boston's Daniel Nava for the second out in the 11th, and Doumit would have never come close to it while he was tiptoeing around the outfield.
After that catch, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Will Middlebrooks followed with singles. If Nava had reached base, he either would have scored on Middlebrooks' hit or would have easily been able to tag up and score on the ball hit by Drew, even if it was caught.
Gardenhire could have avoided all of this by not pinch-hitting Doumit at all, but the Twins trailed at the time and Doumit was the best option to hit. When you're trailing in the ninth inning, you're only worried about tying up the game; if you don't at least tie the score, you won't have to worry about defense anyway.
Pinch-running for Willingham wasn't as much a problem as pinch-hitting Wilkin Ramirez for Hicks in the 10th inning.
On the surface, Ramirez has been hitting better this year than Hicks and the Twins had the go-ahead run at second base with one out. However, Ramirez, a right-hander, was hitting against right-handed reliever Clay Mortensen instead of the switch-hitting Hicks. Plus, Hicks had a career OPS of .800 in the minors compared to Ramirez's .759, and Hicks has been hitting better since being moved down in the order.
Mortensen has had more success this year against left-handed batters, but that is in fewer than 80 plate appearances. And he has been better against right-handed batters in his career, which is a much larger sample size.
The Twins didn't score in the 10th and that left them with an outfield of Doumit, Ramirez and Parmelee, which is probably the worst possible outfield the Twins can put out there with players that have actually played out there. On the game-winning hit, Ramirez was a couple steps short of catching the ball as well, and Hicks is a much better defender, so it is not difficult to see Hicks making the catch to extend the game at least one more inning.
With all these moves, the Twins ended up losing with Escobar, probably the Twins' worst hitter, in the lineup instead of Willingham and the winning hit falling between Doumit and Ramirez. That's not putting a team in the best position to win.
Darin McGilvra has been a professional sports writer since 1997 and has been a Twins follower since Kirby Puckett's breakout season of 1986. He has been published in The Californian, a newspaper covering Riverside County, and currently writes for Spotya Media.
Follow Darin on Twitter at @SoCalTwinsfan.
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